A Wisconsin Woman Led a German Resistance That Enraged Hitler

By: Dave Roos  | 
Mildred Harnack
Mildred Harnack was born in Wisconsin where she studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before moving to Germany. Rebecca Donner

If you've never heard of Mildred Harnack that's about to change. By any measure, the free-thinking young woman from Wisconsin is an American hero.

During World War II, Mildred and her German husband Arvid lived in Berlin, where she became the only American — male or female — to serve as a leader in the underground German resistance against Adolf Hitler.


Mildred paid the ultimate price for her brave opposition to the Nazis. She was sentenced to six years of hard labor for the crimes of treason and espionage, but ultimately Hitler personally ordered her to death in 1943.

But instead of being hailed as a freedom fighter back home, Mildred and her co-conspirators were falsely painted as "communist spies" working for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Mildred's own family burned her letters for fear of being labeled as communist sympathizers.

Eighty years after her execution, Mildred's remarkable true story is being told, thanks in large part to her great-great-niece, author Rebecca Donner.

We spoke with Donner about her award-winning biography of Harnack, "All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days," to learn how a literature professor from Milwaukee dared to stand up to Hitler and the Third Reich.


Forming the Underground Resistance 'The Circle'

Arvid and Mildred Harnack
Mildred Harnack (right) and her husband Arvid lived in Berlin during Adolf Hitler's rise to power. They formed an underground resistance group that became known as "the Circle." German Resistance Memorial Center

Mildred and Arvid Harnack met and fell in love as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A week after Mildred received her master's degree, she and Arvid married and in 1929, at the age of 26, she moved to Germany. Mildred pursued a Ph.D. and taught American literature at the University of Berlin (where Albert Einstein was on the faculty). The young couple joined a vibrant community of intellectuals, artists and writers in cosmopolitan Berlin.

But soon the political situation in Germany began to deteriorate. As Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party consolidated more and more power in the early 1930s, Mildred had to make a choice.


"She could have boarded a boat and gone back to the U.S.," Donner says. "But Mildred wanted to fight, to educate and to inspire people. As an American, she felt very invested in this."

Mildred and Arvid started holding meetings in their apartment. Once Hitler was named chancellor in 1933 and Germany quickly slipped from a parliamentary democracy into a fascist dictatorship, the meetings took on a new urgency and the group took on a new name: the Circle.

"They were Social Democrats and Communists, anarchists, Jews, Catholics, atheists and Protestants," says Donner. "What united the group was their opposition to Hitler." Their aim was to undermine Nazi propaganda, so they wrote pamphlets criticizing Hitler and urged Germans to join the resistance. 


From Education to Espionage

Midred Harnack
Author Rebecca Donner (left) is seen here interviewing 89-year-old Don Heath Jr. Mildred tutored Heath when he was a young boy (photo insert) and slipped intel into his backpack for him to pass to his father. Rebecca Donner

In Nazi Germany, any opposition to Hitler was violently suppressed and the media was tightly controlled. One of the primary objectives of the Circle was simply to educate the German public about what was really going on.

The Circle's first resistance tactic was to publish underground leaflets (here's one from 1942) that exposed the lies peddled by the Nazi Party. At a time when foreign (non-German) radio broadcasts were banned, Mildred translated radio addresses by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt that criticized the Nazi regime.


This was dangerous work. Anyone caught with an underground leaflet would be thrown in prison or incarcerated at a concentration camp, Donner says. But by the mid-1930s, Mildred and the other members of the Circle realized they needed to take even greater risks.

"Fighting a dictator with paper was a poor weapon," Donner says. "They changed their strategy and decided to undermine the regime from within."

Arvid, Mildred's husband, posed as a loyal Nazi and got a job at the Ministry of Economics. Arvid had connections to the Soviet Union, and he used his government position to collect intel on Hitler's operation and secretly pass it to the Soviet embassy in Berlin.

Mildred did the same spy work for the Americans (the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allies in WWII). She tutored a young boy, Don Heath, who was the son of an American diplomat at her apartment twice a week for two years.

"At the end of each lesson, she'd slip a piece of paper into his knapsack, which he'd bring back to his father at the embassy," Donner says.

Mildred and the other members of the Circle used their connections at foreign embassies to help Jews escape the murderous antisemitism of the Nazi regime. They even discussed acts of sabotage against the German government.

By 1940, the Circle was the largest resistance group in Berlin, Donner says, and by 1942 more than 100 members were risking their lives to undermine the Nazis while constantly watching their backs for the Gestapo, Hitler's ruthless secret police.


The End of the 'Red Orchestra'

Mildred Harnack
This letter from the National Archives says Mildred Harnack assisted Arvid in Soviet intelligence and espionage, and that she was executed in 1943. National Archives/Public Domain and Rebecca Donner

Unbeknownst to the Harnacks and their resistance fighters, the Gestapo was already closing in. German intelligence intercepted messages sent from members of the Circle to the Soviet Union. The Nazis had named their group the "Red Orchestra," believing the Circle was a communist plot.

In late August 1942, the Gestapo pounced. After one of their close friends was arrested, Mildred and Arvid tried to flee the country, but they were tracked down and captured in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. Carted in shackles to the basement prison of the Gestapo headquarters, Mildred and Arvid were among 119 members of the Circle who were arrested and would be tried as traitors.


Mildred and several others were tortured by a sadistic Nazi interrogator named Walter Habecker in hopes they'd give up information about the resistance. Donner says that several prisoners committed suicide rather than face Habecker's brutal treatment. They were forced to stand trial before a five-judge panel of Nazi judges.

Mildred was found guilty and sentenced to six years in a hard labor camp. Arvid and several other members of the Circle were executed in December 1942. Many were hung, including Arvid, while others were beheaded.

But Hitler, fuming after Germany's defeat at Stalingrad, wanted to send a message to would-be communist conspirators. He personally ordered that Mildred be executed, as well.

On Feb. 16, 1943, 40-year-old Mildred Harnack was transported from the Charlottenburg Women's Prison to the notorious execution center at the Plötzensee Prison. Of the thousands of prisoners put to death at Plötzensee, Mildred Harnack was executed by guillotine. She is the only American to be executed on direct orders from Hitler.


Restoring Mildred's Legacy

At the close of WWII, as Allied investigators tracked down Nazi war criminals, they learned about the fate of members of the so-called "Red Orchestra." Investigators were repeatedly told by captured Nazis that Mildred and her conspirators were Stalin spies.

Mildred, Arvid and other members of the Circle had indeed shared intelligence with the Soviet Union, but Mildred and Arvid had also done the same for the Americans. Nevertheless, they were branded as communists, not freedom fighters who bravely resisted Hitler within Germany.


"Mildred's oldest sister ordered everyone in the family to burn her letters after she was executed," says Donner. "She was concerned that the whole family would be tainted by their 'radical' sister."

It wasn't until 1998 that the U.S. Congress passed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, which declassified reams of top-secret documents dating to WWII. Donner discovered a long-lost correspondence between an American intelligence officer and his superior upon learning that Mildred had been executed.

"The officer basically said, 'This is an American hero and we should honor her. Also, this looks like a war crimes case and we should pursue it,'" Donner says. "But his superior wrote back and said that Mildred's execution was justified and to bury the case. That's why we didn't hear about this for over 50 years."

Donner herself only learned about her heroic great-great-aunt as a teenager, when Donner's grandmother handed her a bundle of Mildred's surviving letters and urged her to tell Mildred's story one day. Since Donner published "All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days" in 2021 (the title comes from a Goethe poem, one of the last things that Mildred translated in prison), she's frequently asked if Mildred and Arvid gave their lives in vain.

"My answer is always no," says Donner. "Yes, it's a tragedy that Mildred and others lost their lives, but they teach us about the importance of having the courage of your convictions and fighting for what you believe in, even if it's an unpopular position."

In recognition of Mildred's bravery and sacrifice, there is a school named after her in Milwaukee. In Berlin, a school and a street also bear her name.